You wait years for a big budget Hollywood Kaiju film and then two come along at once. Last year, Guillermo del Toro reimagined the classic Japanese monster genre with Pacific Rim, and now Gareth Edwards, the promising young director behind indie favourite Monsters, has rebooted the father of all monsters, Godzilla, for a new generation of filmgoers.
We begin in 1999, in the Philippines, where a giant fossilised skeleton has been uncovered in a collapsed mine, and then quickly move to Japan, where Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is concerned by some unusual seismic activity, which is soon followed by unpleasantness. Then we jump forward 15 years to join up with new protagonist Ford Brody, Joe’s son, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. It seems that whatever stirred back in 1999 is about to be unleashed on unsuspecting humankind, and Joe, now an exasperated conspiracy theorist, enlists his son to help him expose it.
Edwards’ film takes its time to set up character and scene, and to anticipate the arrival of the titular creature, and is successful in doing so. From thereon in, its structure condenses into a series of set pieces, usually involving a slow build up and a reveal, and the opening half hour’s sense of conspiracy takes on a more straightforward disaster/monster film tone.
Throughout, there are strong visuals to enjoy, from the initial subterranean burial chamber (which reminded me a little of the late HR Giger’s buried alien spaceship), to a shot of desperate traffic trying to escape San Francisco, which wouldn’t look out of place in a Roland Emmerich film, and jets careering out of the sky while pilots frantically deploy their parachutes. In the final act, when things escalate and cities begin to fall, Edwards still has some tricks up his sleeve, as he finally gets the chance to cut loose.
It’s a bit of a shame that Ford never really becomes an interesting protagonist during all of this – possibly as a result of the film’s fairly early shift in focus. Elizabeth Olsen plays Ford’s wife Elle, and does the best with what screen time she gets, but really all the actors are playing second fiddle to the spectacle by the mid point. Ken Watanabe, as giant lizard expert Dr Serizawa, increasingly gets sidelined into looking aghast at things in the distance, while Sally Hawkins barely gets a chance to register as his associate. Pacific Rim also suffered slightly from a lack of human connection to the action, but Guillermo del Toro squeezed more life into his characters in that film, despite the fact that it was heavier on the action than Godzilla.
Pacific Rim also had a more consistent level of spectacle. While Godzilla does have good set pieces, it never really wows until the final sequence, so we’re left with more time to think about how Ford’s meandering nuclear bomb plotline isn’t really that interesting. It also crucially lacks Pacific Rim’s sense of fun. Godzilla is a much more solemn, serious project, which is fine in theory, but the characters aren’t strong enough to carry the weight being placed on them. That isn’t to say the actors aren’t performing – quite the contrary, this is a strong cast – but they just aren’t allowed to breathe life into proceedings, especially once we pass the half way stage, at which point the script gives up trying to provide them with anything interesting to say.
The film does get a lift during the final sequence, though, when Edwards at last has a canvass upon which to let his characters – human and monster – duke it out. The climactic city levelling is nicely shot (with strong effects work) and there are plenty of nice visual moments to savour, including that HALO drop from the trailer, even if it’s really just there to add visual flair. A word too should go to the sound design, which is rarely less than shatteringly bombastic, and conveys the sense of scale required.
This isn’t the thrilling reimagining of Godzilla that it initially looked like it might be. There are strong moments, nice little nods to the franchise’s history, and some good, if limited, performances. It might just drop your jaw once or twice. But to really establish the giant lizard as the star of a new franchise, this needed to be a more memorable outing.